Do we need academic studies to raise our children?

Parenting has always been the most intuitive thing ever. Yet, in certain situations, it’s helpful to know that scientific data can back up the way we do things in our family. After I had published my recent post in social media, it got that many messages from concerned parents, and that many thunderclaps over my cheeky (apparently) statement that I had to sit and write a reply. With a drop of academic data added.

First, though, allow me to remind what this blog is about. I am telling you here the story of my monolingual family who happened to raise a naturally bilingual little man (five and a half years old now), who speaks, writes and reads fluently both in Polish and English. To get to the point where we are now I created my own method to introduce him to a language that is not native to me.

Ka comprehends both languages without a problem, and he can express himself equally well in Polish and English. He can read on a level that is a few years higher than expected for his age, and if you ask him to tell you what the story was about, he will explain this in detail, no matter what language. From an academic point of view, it means that both his expressive and receptive vocabulary have developed equally well. A few days ago he passed a test (in Polish) and was admitted to a Polish online school. If as parents we have things to be concerned about, luckily they are not related to his language development.

In my turbulent post (as above) I voted quite a firm “No” for the exclusivity of the strategy called Minority Language at Home (ML@H), which among migrants is one of the most popular methods to introduce a child to the community language (just to remind, according to ML@H parents can communicate with the child in their heritage language while the community language is being introduced through interacting with members of the community). How is this possible then that my son’s Polish is still as good as his English, even though every day at school he is exposed to the majority language? What did I do that his language development wasn’t delayed? (by the age of 12 months he could speak 41 words in total: 22 in Polish and 19 in English, plus lots of other words that imitate the animal sounds in both languages ). Please follow my blog or my Twitter account, I promise to tell you more details.

The most frequent question I was asked was: “What is this 30% threshold you’re talking about?” Here we go then.

As a person who likes to have her own opinion on things and someone who sees people as individuals rather than mass, I always look at statistics with a reserve. Nevertheless, it does make me think when I read about the results of studies of such notable personalities like the Canadian Professor Fred Genesee, one of the leading specialists in a second language acquisition and bilingualism.

The language exposure and the socioeconomic status are known to be the strongest predictors of a language acquisition. Prof. Genesee’s research proved that bilingual children develop their communication skills at the same age as monolingual children if they are exposed to both languages equally, i.e. 50% to one language and 50% to the other language. At the same time, bilingual children may show delay or incomplete development in one of the languages if their exposure to that language is too limited. To acquire native-like proficiency they do not need to be exposed to both languages as much as monolingual children, yet there is the minimum amount of the required exposure, below which it might be impossible to acquire the same level of proficiency. We need to bear in mind that scientific studies continue to evolve, and the results may change depending on the current knowledge. At the time when Prof. Genesee carried his studies (early 2000), researchers estimated it at about 30%.

There are still not enough studies, which focus on an early (by 36 months) language acquisition because the majority of experts are concentrating on the time when the language production is more active. Nevertheless, specialists like Barbara Zurer Pearson, Sylvia C. Fernandez, D.Kimbrough Oller and Vanessa Lewedeg, who studied simultaneous bilingual infants (from 8 to 30 months) noticed strong connections between the time of the interactive exposure and the size of expressive vocabulary in each language. According to their research even as little as 20% of exposure to one language can help in the development of the active language. Nonetheless, if we want our child to develop equally well in both languages, according to those experts the exposure requires 40% -60% of the interactive contact with each language. It means that a child needs actually to speak the language with another person and although sitting them in front of TV at times might be helpful, it would never replace a proper chat with other human beings.

Considering the most recent studies, such as of Dr Elin Thordardottir from School of Communication Sciences and Disorders in Quebec, it seems that the 40-60% becomes settling as a more precise value. Thordardottir observed that bilingual children reach the expectations for their monolingual peers once they get to a certain threshold of language exposure. It counts approximately as 40% for receptive vocabulary (comprehension) and 60% for productive vocabulary (expressing oneself). At the same time, she also suggests that to give even more exposure than that may be unnecessary in supporting further development.

This 30% that a parent should consider when introducing the child to another language seems to be placed somewhere in-between. During my son’s early introduction period I used slightly different time measures, which I’ll be writing about soon, so based on our experience this 30% would be indeed the minimum time for exposure to the majority language.

Now, a few words based on what we as a family have been through, and about the aim of this blog (yes, again!). This is also the answer to some of the comments on my previous post.

  1. In my blog, where I’ll be talking about my method of making a child naturally bilingual you will never read that this is better to give up your minority language and focus on teaching the community language. My strong belief is that as parents we should be introducing our children to both languages at the same time, and allow them to develop their language skills at their pace and as quickly or as slowly as they need. The earlier we start, the more time we can offer.
  2. Bear in mind that the percentage (30% or 40%, or any other one) is just a number, and if you think of exposing your child to another language, it’s worth to include also other aspects, such as the quality of immersion. An hour spent on chatting with you versus two hours of your child playing with other 12-month-old babies, an hour of you interacting with your child versus two hours of him or her sitting in front of TV, etc.
  3. A parent doesn’t have to be a proficient speaker to help their child learn a language at an early age. This is my conclusion based on the scientific studies of a language development between 0 and 36 months. Only about their third birthday children are becoming more grammar conscious and start to develop more complex phrases with multiple words, therefore the grammar and syntax we introduce earlier do not have to be overly complicated and will still play their role in a language development. This is also one of the principles, on which I, as a non-native speaker, based the introduction of the majority language to my son.

As I always emphasise in my posts, my aim from the start was to prepare my child for the encounter with the “big world” and the “real life” outside our family home. I wanted to make sure that he can learn English at his own pace and in the most natural way. When a child starts school at five, they are thrown in at the deep end and they must deal with any challenges all by themselves. However, when it’s the family who helps them step by step introduce the community language just like they are introducing their heritage language, this can make all the difference both in their well-being and in their ability to comprehend the language at school. To us as a family, it was more than worth to try our own approach.

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